Flowery Branch, Ga --With offseason OTAs a little over halfway complete, Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith is pleased with what his team is showing him.
With seven more practices to go until the team wraps up the offseason preparation stage of their season on June 17, Smith likes the continued enthusiasm he's seeing in the meeting room and on the practice field.
"I think the guys are working hard," Smith said following Thursday's practice. "I'm pleased with how they are working. Their attitude has been great."
Smith isn't one to mince words with his team, so the positive sentiment following today's two-hour session carries a lot of weight.
When the team breaks in June, the players and coaches will have one final opportunity to disconnect, recharge, and regroup before returning to training camp on July 29.
Falcons players and coaches are pleased with the attendance of the voluntary OTAs. The only player absent from the team practices is John Abraham, entering his 11th year in the NFL.
The coaching staff is aware of Abraham's absence and knew he would not be in attendance. The three-time Pro Bowler missed OTAs last offseason as well.
Most players believe OTAs benefit rookies and less-experienced players the most. Players like Abraham approach the game professionally and know how to prepare for a season and condition the body.
"The older guys that aren't here, it's probably beneficial for them because they've been in the game ten seasons and they need to rest their bodies," said wide receiver Roddy White.
Many feel being present at practices right now lays the foundation for trust later in the season. The more reps each side of the ball can take together, the better feel they'll gain for how teammates may respond in certain situations.
"If you have everybody here you know how they're going to play on Sunday," said linebacker Curtis Lofton. "You don't guess if he's going to be here or be there because you guys have been together in practice. It's a trust factor. We've got a great group of guys that come in here every day ready to work and that's going to show up on Sundays."
The Falcons also welcomed back a few players that were absent with injuries last week.
Wide receiver Kerry Meier, defensive end Chauncey Davis, and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux all returned to practice this week after missing time with minor injuries.
Wideout Harry Douglas, defensive tackle Peria Jerry, and cornerback Brian Williams are still inactive, rehabbing from season-ending injuries sustained last season. Smith feels positive about the health of his team and the progression of his three injured players. He's also pleased that no additional injuries are being suffered.
"We're getting closer," said Smith. "The big thing is the guys that are definitely out for OTAs are the guys that had the surgeries last season."
Defense looking to grow
Though the Falcons finished tenth in the NFL last season in defending the run, they were 21st overall in team defense.
That's a stat the entire unit has set a goal to change in 2010.
"As a defensive unit we just want to continue to get better," said Lofton. "Our goal is to be in the top ten, if not better than that. We've just got to keep working hard and bringing it every day."
The defense is using this time to integrate offseason addition Dunta Robinson at cornerback and rookies like linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Corey Peters. Lofton says the unit is gelling and gaining an understanding of what they're trying to accomplish.
One of Smith's primary objectives is to improve the team's defense on third down and to allow less big plays by opposing team's offenses.
"We gave up way too many explosive plays," said Smith. "Any time you give up an explosive play on defense, you're going to give up points. It's either going to be a field goal on that drive or a touchdown."
Lofton echoes his coach's feelings. He believes an improvement on third down performance has been recognized and they're making strides to improve.
"As a defense that's our number one goal," the third-year middle linebacker said. "We don't want to be the weak link on the chain. So we're coming out here every day and working hard. All the guys talk about it when we see each other, 'Let's get it going. Let's improve on third down.' Everybody is aware of it and we want to get better."
Falcons VP of Football Communications Reggie Roberts, who knows as much as anyone not to get too excited about what you see in shorts in May and June, couldn't help but notice how well free agent CB Dunta Robinson is meshing with his new teammates and shining in practice.
Roberts tweeted after practice: "Was out at practice today. I know we have not strapped on the pads yet, but Dunta Robinson is as good as advertised. He makes us better."
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Smith wants his 2010 offense to be as explosive as possible and he feels some of the successes from last season will attribute to that type of production this season.
Due to injuries, players like running back Jason Snelling and wide receiver Eric Weems were thrust into more important roles than previously planned. The experience gained from their play last season can make Atlanta's offense even more dangerous with their returning playmakers in White, running back Michael Turner, and tight end Tony Gonzalez.
"I think that we're now in a situation where we have a number of weapons on the offensive side of the ball and I think we can take advantage of distributing the ball to our playmakers and put us in a much more advantageous situation," said Smith.
According to White, the offense has the tools; it just needs the ball as much as possible. He said on Thursday the offense needs to focus more on breaking tackles and converting third downs. The more third downs, the longer they hold the ball.
"That's our big thing," he said. "We want to be out there on the field as much as possible and try to eat up the clock and score more touchdowns."
Roddy leading the way
Entering his sixth season in the NFL, all with the Falcons, White has found himself in a role with which he's unfamiliar: veteran.
After Brian Finneran (11) and Michael Jenkins (7), White's the most-tenured receiver on the roster. The two-time Pro Bowler knows with that tag comes an expectation of leadership, a role he's beginning to embrace.
"I'm being more vocal," said White. "This is my sixth year and I'm becoming a veteran. I don't know how much longer Finn [Finneran] can be around here so I've got to take his spot. That's kind of my thing, I want to go out there, help the young guys out, help my team out, and make sure we're all on the same page."